Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Can a Major World Power Really Be This Bad?

Rampant fraud, theft, violent intimidation, deceit, and corruption up to the very highest office--this is Russia today, according to author Bill Browder, who lived through it. Sadly, his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, did not. Arrested on trumped-up charges, tormented in prison to extract a false confession, Magnitsky absorbed the full and lethal wrath of the reigning thugs who would not sit by as their schemes and crimes were exposed to the public.

I can't get Browder's story, Red Notice, out of my head. His edge-of-your-seat account of the inescapable brutality of the Kremlin, and a favored handful of Russian oligarchs who control that economy, stunned me. I've been used to Russia playing the bad guy in U.S.-Russian relations, but surely they aren't so awful these days? After all, communism crumbled there decades ago, right? 

Browder tells of his heady days in Moscow in the early 1990s, where he went to take advantage of the new privatization of companies. His company, Hermitage Capital, bought up large chunks of shares, whose value proceeded to go sky high. He made a lot of money, and a lot of money for his happy clients. But in the process he ran into things that did not add up. He hit obstacles that did not make sense. And he wound up exposing fraud and theft on a scale that I could hardly comprehend. 

This is an important book because it is not about the past. It is not about the horrors of Soviet Russia, where white could be declared black and the innocent could easily be executed as guilty. This is about Russia today, a country still in the grip of corruption and deceit, from the local policemen to the man at the very top. A land where the law is no guarantee of protection or anything resembling due process. 

It is also the story of Browder's quest for justice, especially for the horrifying murder of his friend and attorney Sergei. Feeling responsible for Sergei's arrest, an arrest spawned simply by the man's association with Browder, the author dedicates himself to exposing what happened and getting the perpetrators punished.

Near the end of the book, Browder writes this from his London home:
I have to assume that there is a very real chance that Putin or members of his regime will have me killed someday. Like anyone else, I have no death wish and I have no intention of letting them kill me. I can't mention most of the countermeasures I take, but I will mention one: this book. If I'm killed, you will know who did it. When my enemies read this book, they will know that you know. So if you sympathize with this search for justice, or with Sergei's tragic fate, please share this story with as many people as you can. That simple act will keep the spirit of Sergei Magnitsky alive and go further than any army of bodyguards in keeping me safe.

How could I not write about this book? I hope you will read it.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Saw the House in Half, of Course

The next time you find yourself wondering if that last home improvement was really worth the money and all the trouble, think of George Eastman. I visited his mansion in Rochester, New York, recently. This camera and film tycoon (think Kodak film and Brownie cameras) stopped at nothing to achieve his ambitious goals, at home as in business.

After his magnificent house was completed in 1905, Mr. Eastman found that the conservatory, which occupies the center of the house, seemed somehow a little too small, a bit too square. Not by much, but still . . . .  I imagine that every time he descended the stairs and took his seat at the little breakfast table in that room, he squirmed with the vague discomfort of knowing that the space was not quite right. 

So Mr. Eastman put his architect and builders back to work. The assignment: Cut the house in half and push. Then insert nine more feet into the conservatory and do your best to match the existing marble in the floor. And that's what they did. I can only imagine the mess.

The result was superb, and you would never know that the room had been altered unless someone pointed out the slight variation in the floor. Now Mr. Eastman could eat his breakfast in peace, enjoying the music being played for him by his organist just across the room. (Eventually the great man realized that one organ was just not sufficient and had a second one installed to accompany it.)

Suddenly your plan for that addition does not look over-reaching after all, does it?
Pictured: The conservatory at the George Eastman Mansion and Museum, Rochester, NY. Photo by Ann Doyle.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Other Horror of the Manchester Concert

The explosion at the Ariana Grande concert last night in Manchester, England, has certainly been widely covered in the news. And we can agree that it was a hideous, evil act that has devastated the families of all those who died there.

Many in the audience were teenagers, some with their parents. Reports mention children as young as 12 and even 8. So who is Ariane Grande that she attracts such a young crowd, with the approval of their parents?

I had to look her up on YouTube. The two videos I ran opened my eyes to who she is, but confused me deeply about why young girls were at the concert. First of all, Ariana is 23 years old, beautiful (of course), and a former Nickelodeon star. Once again, on the road to fame and wealth, a child star leaves behind her perky innocence and replaces it with a hyper sexual persona (remember Brittany Spears, Miley Cyrus, etc.).

In Ariana's "Side to Side" video, the first one I happened upon, she has been desperately waiting all day to be with her boyfriend, even though her friends warn her that he's no good. She admits, smiling, that she has "made deals with the devil" for the excitement that awaits her come evening. For some reason, she leads a pack of other overheated females in a workout on exercise bikes to demonstrate her feelings, and we are favored with camera shots from behind, where we discover that they are all wearing thongs. Lovely.

"Everyday" goes one better in its directness. Ariana dances in front of the camera, wearing an oversized men's down jacket, and tells us how her boyfriend gives her the "good sh-t" so she "never wants to quit" every day, every day. Huh? Did I misunderstand? That possibility is eliminated by the lyrics being boldly displayed across the screen as she sings this catchy number.

And parents are taking their 12-year-old daughters to this woman's concert?

That's the other horror of the Manchester incident, one that I don't read anything about in the news. And to me, it's harder to explain than a crazed ISIS operative setting off yet another explosive in a public place crowded with supposed infidels. Parents: Are Ariana's contortions and salacious lyrics the model you really want to put in front of your daughter--or son?

After writing about Shakira's irresponsible video just last week, I guess it could look like I am the crazy one. But I maintain that these female "artists" and their handlers are conducting a re-education effort on the world's young women. They are teaching them to ignore their instincts for romance and stability and family in favor of daily (wild) sex, freedom from any personal restraint, and a complete shedding of stuffy old values like finding a good man who can help care for and support them.

"It's just that sex sells," some will say. "That's why they do it." It's bigger than that, but it may well be about the money. People leading a regular life, raising children, surely don't spend their money as freely as those out there living for the moment.

But the question remains, to parents everywhere who condone the consumption of such entertainment by their children: What in the world are you thinking?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Falling In Lunacy

I just got a new computer, driven to that desperate measure when my ancient laptop could no longer display even a run-of-the-mill web page without sighing and shutting down.

So, giddy at the prospect of listening to all the latest music YouTube had to offer, I hopped over to that site today and perused the opening page, showing what's popular now! I saw that Shakira had a new song. I do admire Shakira's voice, although she long ago sold out to the brokers of "ho style." Guess a tremendous voice is no longer enough for a young woman--but that's another column.

Shakira's video was for her song "Me Enamoré" (I fell in love). Even if you don't understand the Spanish lyrics, you'll get the story. Pretty girl in short-shorts falls for a raucous guy who busts up the hotel room--we see the after effects as girl calmly rights the capsized plastic palm and smiles at the appalling mess around her. Where's the perpetrator? We don't know, but heck, she doesn't mind.

Then we come along to watch more of their hijinks, like cutting through a chain on some gate, where they proceed to run through the compound gaily as a (luckily chained) dog snarls at them. Then they are in a meadow of yellow flowers, then they are having a food fight in the same abused hotel room. All action is punctuated with Shakira wryly looking at the camera as though to say, "I know he's a cretin, but gee, what can I do? I fell in love."

Of course the story ends with pretty girl Shakira falling into bed, laughing, as she beckons the bad, bad boy to follow. And oh! Joy! We at last get to see this irresistible criminal's handsome face in the parting shot.

Now, I hope Shakira did this video as an exposé on the lunacy of young women these days. If so, it earns a Brilliant rating. If instead it is supposed to be a seductive romp with irresponsibility and forbidden fun, then it encapsulates the epidemic that is running through our younger generations.

Shakira's captivating lover is there to hug and squeeze (and more); he is there to lead them in criminal trespass and other exhilarating pranks; he's there to turn a rented room upside down and leave spaghetti sauce on the walls (she will clean up after him). But I can't picture him staying up at night with the sick baby; can't picture him going into work every day, even when he does not feel like it; can't imagine him sitting with his pretty girl as she cries and vents about how the job interview fell through.

I pray daily that our young women will wake up from the fantasy that Hollywood has marketed for so many years now. It goes like this: You can have lots of fun, avoid almost all pain, stay beautiful, be your own person, seduce men when you feel like it, send them packing when you grow bored, succeed at whatever you want, and most of all, no matter what, have lots and lots of fun. And you can keep this up indefinitely. Hey, pass me another mojito!
Sorry, my dear, but the bar is closing. And you have a pretty steep tab to pay before you leave. Ah, your boyfriend will pay? I think I saw him leaving a few minutes ago with that girl with the unicorn tattoo.

Videos like Shakira's reflect a deep confusion. Why are we here? We're here for the good times, they say. Grab all you can. But in reality, women were put on Earth not just to keep guys company as they joyride across the country. They are in this world to stabilize, to reinforce, to listen and guide, to teach and lift up. They can make men better than they would be on their own. That means women can set the bar higher and inspire their men and children to reach it. That is world-changing. 

And part of a woman knows this. But it looks rather dull and long and undramatic. That's why they need other women to inspire them.

Shakira, and all the video vamps--do better. Get off the Tilt-a-whirl long enough to spend some time inspiring our young women toward better things, harder things--better things.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

International Lady Day

Hooray! This (March 8) is International Lady Day. Your calendar might show it as International Women's Day, but we know better.

This is a day to celebrate all things intrinsically and delightfully feminine. These include, but are not limited to, flowered teapots, sparkly earrings, warm hugs to children and anyone who looks like they need a bit of motherly encouragement, bright dresses, an uncanny understanding of personal relationships (especially by the older ladies), and sending out birthday cards on time to each family member.

So, ladies, feel free to go put on your frilliest dress and your favorite jewelry today and enjoy being a woman. Gentlemen, send a mental thank-you note heavenward that God did not stop after creating Adam.

And don't forget today to honor the most special Lady ever, Mary the mother of Jesus. Such an inspiration to us all.

Happy Lady Day!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Attacked by the Love and Compassion Crowd (or, What's So Great About Unity?

Doug Russo must have had a hunch that the Unity in Community rally here in St. Augustine this afternoon would need some balance that he could provide. Or maybe he took the organizers at their word, that this was to be "not a protest rally" but a time for us to come together in civility and learn to listen and talk with one another.

So he came to the Plaza de la Constitucion with his sign and quietly stood at one end, taking advantage of his Constitutional right to express his opinion. But evidently he was not unified enough. He did not love enough. Because a gang of attendees separated themselves from their fellow sign-carriers ("Stop the Hate," "Make America Kind Again," etc.) and surrounded him. They pulled him from the stone bench he stood on, shoved him, and knocked him to the ground. These ambassadors of honest dialog also tore his sign in two before they were done.

Fortunately, some people intervened, and Doug (not one to be easily chased away), dusted himself off, picked up the pieces of his sign, and resumed his position atop the stone bench. That's where I found him an hour later, still making his silent statement that "Abortion Kills Children."

This contemptible behavior by some of the Love and Unity folks comes as little surprise to many of us. We have seen for a long time the astounding contradiction between their words and their tactics toward those who oppose them. As you stir this strange pot, a crucial question rises to the surface: What's so great about unity, anyway?

The most unified countries are not places you would want to live. They are Communist countries, where no dissent from the Party line is allowed, no free thinking, no "divisive" expressions of personal beliefs. Is that what we're after?

I think not. We should remember that from the earliest days of our nation, we have been a people divided. Should we rebel or remain loyal to the crown? Should we leave the South's economy alone or eliminate slavery? Should we outlaw alcohol to reduce the ruinous effects of it on families or does each man have the right to as much whiskey as he can hold? And on and on.

Some of our differences involve logistics: What's the most effective way to get something done? Some involve allegiances to different economic models and taxation plans. But the most incendiary, as we see today, have to do with traditional moral values or the shedding of them.

And I find that beneath the cries of "Unity!" and "Compassion!" usually lies an insistence that people of traditional (Christian) values leave those beliefs behind. The new-age folks seem to think that clinging to these ideas--that unborn babies are people with rights and value, or that only a man plus a woman can make a true marriage--is so heinous as to constitute a crime against the new humanity. As such, you have no right to that belief and must be suppressed. Then we'll have unity!

Before I left Doug and headed home, two ladies walked past us, saw his sign, and asked if this was an anti-abortion rally. Doug said yes, and I explained that at this end (that is, Doug and his bench) it was, but over there (indicating the crowd), "Not so much." They walked on with a puzzled look.

But it's really simple. The last thing we want in the United States is unity, unless we must come together to defend ourselves from an enemy or rebuild from a hurricane.  The normal state of these United States is disagreement, the co-existence of starkly different ideologies and approaches to any given problem. But if we want to be a civilized country, we will not tear our opponents'--or their signs--to pieces, no matter how much we want to.

Sometimes our causes and candidates will win, and often they will lose. That's when we get to maintain our dignity and try again.

Photo by Ann Doyle.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Trading Places With an English Hound

Friends, I am switching some of my attention in the first days of this new year to a blog I have just launched: The English Hound. As the blog's subtitle says, the column will provide tips on using and even enjoying the English language. It is actually a continuation of a column by the same name that I began years ago while collecting a paycheck as a writer and editor. :-) And I find that I miss it.

My hope is that the Hound will provide interesting tidbits on why we say some of the things we do and how to avoid embarrassment through misuse of one kind or another.

You can find the Hound at You may even submit questions through the Comment feature there, and I will try to cover them in upcoming columns (or include an email address if you would prefer an individual reply).

So we'll see you here at Saints and Muddy Shoes, or at The English Hound

Ann Maureen

January 3, 2017